John the Baptist, the New Testament prophet we discussed in our Spotlight post a few weeks ago, famously met his end at the hands Herod Antipas and his enraged wife, Herodias, whom the Baptist had publicly decried for breaking the Law of Moses (she was his brother’s wife before she left him to marry Antipas). Taking advantage of the
opportunity to capitalize on Herod’s lust over her daughter, Salome, she managed to use the young woman as a means of executing the imprisoned and beloved John. After dancing before her stepfather at a feast, Salome is promised anything she desires in the world, and at the bidding of her mother, she tells him that she wants the head of John the Baptist on a platter, thus forever sealing her fate as seductress and murderess. Artists have been fascinated by this obliging daughter and unfortunate pawn for centuries.
How to Know Her and Where to Find Her: Salome (whose name is not noted in the Mark 6 account of the story, but given by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus) is typically shown is the midst of the Dance of the Seven Veils, the traditional name of the dance that earned her John’s head on a platter. She is more often depicted with John’s head. But be cautious! When you see an image of woman with a decapitated head, be sure to check for other signs that it is Salome; images of her are sometimes confused with those of the Jewish heroine Judith, who beheaded Holofernes, an enemy of the Israelites.
Salome in New York City: One of the most striking portrayals of Salome can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in the same gallery as the stunning Joan of Arc we’ve mentioned here before!). This grand work by Henri Regnault, which catches the eye with its vibrant palette and near-photographic rendering of the figure, is a must-see.
You can also find Salome in the Brooklyn Museum, in a much differently rendered portrayal, though it expresses the woman’s role throughout Western art just the same.
Modern Day Murderess: Salome has been a subject of fascination for centuries. Painted by Caravaggio, Titian, and Dore, among many others, she has also been a muse for writers and musicians. She was the titular character of a play by Oscar Wilde, which premiered in 1896. His imagining of the young femme fatale, as a woman infatuated with the imprisoned Baptist who does not return her affection, captivated other artists and inspired everything from a one-act opera by Richard Strauss to a gritty alternative rock song by 90s singer-songwriter Liz Phair.
Literature – Salome can be found as a minor but significant character in the Brooks Hansen novel John the Baptizer, which we mentioned in our post about John the Baptist a few weeks ago. In Hansen’s rich narrative description of the scene in which Salome performs a dance so sensational that her uncle/stepfather promises her half of his kingdom if she should desire it, the young Herodian princess is little more than a bored, spoiled girl seeking thrills wherever she can find them. In Beatrice Gormley’s young adult novel, Salome, the story is one of maternal betrayal, guilt, and regret. Told from Salome’s point of view, the story acts as a great introduction for readers seeking literature that further characterizes biblical figures, especially traditional villains. Gormley softens the harsh light cast on an obliging girl doing her mother’s bidding and puts the reader in the scene in which the former is blamed for centuries to come while the latter is faintly remembered as a footnote in the crime.
– T.C. for MOBIA